The 39 Clues: The Sword Thief by Peter Lerangis

With yet another author, book 3 follows Amy and Dan to Japan in search of the next clue. But circumstances force them to consider an alliance with Uncle Alistair–Natalie and Ian Kabra have snuck onto Amy and Dan’s flight (while getting them kept off it), kidnapped Nellie, and stolen their belongings, along with the latest clue. But Alistair has already betrayed them once, can they really trust him?

This book has been a real progression in the series because it has finally begun to force the other families to develop (both in terms of how much we know about them and in terms of who they are and the lengths they are willing to go to win). Their motives aren’t as clear as they were in the first two books because they are beginning to question themselves. And though things don’t seem to have changed all that much, I have a feeling they’ve set in motion some big changes that will affect the future of the race.

This time, there was a little more indication that it was a different writer because he tended to use words like “cool” and “lame” more often than the other books did. Though appropriate for the age of the children in the book, it stood out because it hadn’t been used so much in Books One and Two. Even with this, the book flowed well with the others. It continues to impress me how closely the different writers have managed to follow each others’ styles (I figure the goal is to draw in fans from each of these author’s other successful series, which is why I tried the first book–I like Rick Riordan).

I’m excited to see where this series is going (though I do wish the books came in soft cover so that they weren’t so expensive. $13 for such a short book does seem excessive.)

Erec Rex: The Monsters of Otherness by Kaza Kingsley

Erec Rex’s journey/battle to become king isn’t over yet. He’s got to complete the twelve tasks first. Which are bad enough as it is, because they can be life threatening and not as simple as they sound. But worse is that the Stain Brothers and Rock Rayson are allowed to partake as well, along with a barrage of attacks from Baskania. Erec quickly learns that not everything is as it seems and not everyone is who they claim to be. Who can Erec trust and how can he protect the ones he loves? And worse, what if he does become king? He will get a scepter with powers so great that it will ultimately destroy him.

I’ve realized that one of the things I’m really enjoying about this series is the “competition” element. Life is competition, whether at work, school, in a game, we are always trying to be the best in whatever group we’re in. But when the stakes are high, people will often take extreme action and go to extreme lengths to win. (This is why reality competition shows are so fascinating. Think about the lies and betrayals that people have pulled off in shows like Survivor. How many people would do those things in real life? Like the guy who lied about his grandmother dying to garner sympathy…) Here, the competition is about power and the question is, how much should you sacrifice to win? How much do you resort to the tactics of the other side? Erec must answer these questions and more as he seeks to complete each of his tasks.

Erec expected his tasks to be difficult, but he did not expect to discover the city of Alypium against him–they believe he cheated, has enchanted King Piter, and is trying to steal the throne–and the people he cares about most lying to him. Each clue seems straight forward, but as Erec (often with Bethany’s help) learns, they are not so simple. Each task is meant to demonstrate the qualities that a king requires to rule so while Task One may be open the dragon eggs, the test is not simply whether of not to open them but what to do next. And when Task Two is to stop the monsters, who are the monsters that need to be stopped and how do you stop them?

There is no end to the surprise and mystery in this series. I have some theories about Erec’s background, but I’m equally sure that Kingsley will have some more surprises in store.

The Fire Within by Chris D’Lacey (The Last Dragon Chronicles: Book 1)

David is a college student who moves into the Pennykettle residence only to find much more than he expected. Liz Pennykettle makes clay dragons but there is something about the dragons. They almost seem…real. Liz and her rambunctious daughter Lucy sure seem to think so. David is determined to discover the truth about the dragons.

What’s more, there is a one eyed squirrel named Conker in the garden that Lucy is desperate to help. No one knows how it happened. Lucy manages to rope David into her plans and together they attempt to catch the squirrel in order to take it to the vet. Can they discover what hurt Conker and save him in time?

Liz makes David a special dragon, one that helps inspire his writing, he begins writing a story for Lucy about the squirrels. There is on rule that Liz gives him about his dragon: never make it cry.

This book is somewhat unusual for a children’s book series for a number of reasons. One is that the main character is in college, rather than a child. (Of course, there is Lucy, who is ten going on eleven, but while important to the story, she isn’t the person we follow.) The other is that despite being a fantasy story, there is not all that much action-adventure involved. And while most fantasy novels have a true villain, this story does not.

But what The Fire Within lacks in action it makes up for with curiosity and intrigue. The dragons in the novel are nothing like the dragons of other series. Of course, they aren’t what they used to be in the story either. The dragons of old, the “real” dragons, were more like the dragons we imagine. They’re large and intimidating, with sharp teeth and claws, wings, and the ability to breath fire. But when the last dragon was about to die, he gave his light to a human, forever changing the shape and form that the dragons of the future would take.

The book was interesting, though I am curious to see where D’Lacey intends to take the series from here. (Clearly he’s managed since there’s 3-4 more books out, but I can’t really imagine what storyline we’ll see, beyond more information about how dragons became clay creatures.

The 39 Clues: One False Note by Gordon Korman

I was surprised to find how seamlessly this book worked with book one. After all, with two different authors, you can hardly expect the writing styles to match completely. But if there were differences, I didn’t notice them. It could be that had I read them back to back I might have seen it, but as it was, having two different writers didn’t bother me as all. (I think Rick Riordan also gave the first book a simple style that isn’t very difficult to emulate.)

Amy and Dan’s clues take the first to Vienna and beyond, ultimately landing them in Venice where the only way to get around is by foot or canal. Nellie, the children’s au pair, comes more to life in this book as she takes a slightly more active role in ensuring the kids’ safety. (There’s a little bit of question as to why she really cares so much about the Cahill siblings since she didn’t really have much of a connection to them in the US. I kind of want her to secretly be scheming against them but waiting until the very end to turn–they did say trust no one right?) A part of me also hopes that Amy and Dan find some special letter from Grace to them at some point. Even though they know she’s been giving them hints and information for the contest all along, it feels like it would be nice closer for them.

The series does a great job of making you suspicious of all but still wondering if maybe a temporary alliance might be a good idea. (A very temporary, highly suspicious alliance, but still.) One of the biggest mysteries I’m looking forward to having answered is which branch of the Cahill family are Amy and Dan a part of and how did their parents really die? (And of course, what is this powerful secret, but that will have to wait a long time. 39-40 books is it?)

I’d love to learn more about the history of some of the members of the Cahill extended family. We’ve got bits of history on each but I think there is still more to delve into that could add an extra dimension. Wouldn’t it be interesting if there was reason to feel for the Kabras even as they are awful and sinister?

On a side note, I am exceedingly jealous that this author published his first book when he was fourteen. And more than a little impressed.

How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell

The first thing that surprised me about this book is just how different it is from the movie. It’s entire premise (minus Hiccup going from Zero to Hero Disney’s Hercules style) is completely different. Yes, Hiccup is the son of a great Viking leader and he’s nothing but a scrawny pipsqueak but from there most similarities end. The most remarkable thing about Hiccup in the movie was that he was the first person to ever train a dragon rather than kill it. Not so in this book where all Viking’s capture and train a dragon in order to become full0fledged members of the tribe. If you don’t pass the initiation test, you will be sent into exile. When Hiccup catches himself a puny dragon that is even more selfish and difficult than his tribemates’ bigger and more dangerous dragons, he fears he will never gain acceptance by the tribe. But when the village is threatened by the Sea Dragon, a bigger dragon than they can even imagine, Hiccup finds himself with a chance to show everyone what he’s really made of.

While the primary story was different (sadly, there’s no Astrid and Hiccup is not the only dweeb in the group), the heart of the story is still there. It’s funny and clever and you can’t help but feel for our not-so-hero as he tries desperately to fit in. The others don’t make it easy for him, especially Snotlout who intends to overthrow Hiccup and become the new Viking leader in the future.

When I read the book I couldn’t help but imagine Gobber the Belch’s movie voice as the narrator, but otherwise, this book stands on it’s own. It’s a great book that I really enjoyed. It didn’t have as much of a sad-happy ending but it was still touching enough that you wanted to cheer for all involved.

From the start of the book we know that one day Hiccup becomes a mighty hero and leader, but by the end of the book, we know that time has not yet come. There’s much more ineptitude and excitement to come before Hiccup becomes the Viking Hero. I do hope we get an Astrid-like character soon, I think it would add something to the story.

Erec Rex: The Dragon’s Eye by Kaza Kingsley

Erec Rex has always had some strange things growing up–an alarm clock that grows more obnoxious the longer you stay in bed, a toothbrush with a mind of it’s own, a coat rack that dance–but that doesn’t mean there’s magic in the world. Right? He and his family of adopted siblings have been moving from place to place for a while now, his mother June unable to support them otherwise. But when she goes missing and Erec sets out to find her, he, along with Bethany (a girl being horribly mistreated by her uncle and determined to run away), discovers a whole knew world where magic is part of the every day lives of the people. And, there is a contest being held for the children of the land. The three winners will become the kings or queens of the realm, magical scepters and all. But there’s a plot afoot for someone more powerful and sinister to take control. Erec and Bethany need to survive (and maybe even win!) the contest, rescue Erec’s mother, and uncover who is behind the plot. But can Erec trust his mother when he discovers that she’s lied to him all his life? Will he be able to uncover the schemers in time?

There’s a lot of great stuff in this series, from the way the two worlds (The Kingdom of the Keepers of Magic and Upper Earth for the Losers of Magic) relate to each other, the dangers and surprises, and of course the case of mysterious identities. So much is happening in this book but Kingsley manages to keep them all clear and on track so you never find yourself wondering “what just happened?!?” She manages a Snape moment of guess who the bad guy really is and plants doubts in your mind at every turn.

There were moments when it was frustrating to watch Erec ask the wrong questions or forget to ask something important that could have answered his questions, but I suppose things might have been to easy then (and he likely would have been refused the answer anyway). There are still some mysteries left unanswered, but there are more books in the series, so I’m not concerned about that.

The one thing it felt like was missing is a bit of a clearly defined explanation about the rules of magic. It almost seems like it can do anything. Not quite, it does point out a few things it can’t do and the different areas of magic (learnt, bought, or inborn) but I would have liked to know more about it’s abilities and limits and about the training process for apprentices.

I look forward to book number two, I think it will continue to answer more questions about people’s bloodlines and family history and can’t to see where the twelve tasks Erec must complete will take us.

The Candy Shop Wars by Brandon Mull

The Fablehaven Series had already made me love Brandon Mull but for some reason I was hesitant to pick up The Candy Shop Wars. Something about the description at the back of the book didn’t appeal to me. But then, while I was walking around looking for some new books, I thought, well if he could create something even half as good, it will probably be a good book and I really like his writing. So finally, I picked up the book and brought it home. I’m glad I did, it was more than worth buying with the only positive going for it that I’ve liked the author’s other work.

The Candy Shop Wars follows new kid in town Nate and his three new friends Summer, Trevor, and Pigeon when they stop in at the new candy shop in town and have their worlds changed. Mrs. White, the candy shop owner, offers them special candy, if they will do tasks for her to help her gather things she needs for her candy. They agree, the tasks seem pretty harmless anyway and the candy! If you could have candy that let you bounce around like you’re on the moon or allow yourself to control people through the power of suggestion, could you turn it down? And even better, what if there was candy that could help you get back at the school bullies and keep them from bothering you? But is Mrs. White the honest old woman she appears to be or does she have a bigger, more sinister plan in mind?

Mull does a good job keeping both the excitement of discovery and the air of mystery alive in this work (which will soon be coming out with a sequel). The danger is ever present and always growing and you can’t help but be sucked into the book as you wish you could shout advice and encouragement to these young heroes as they are faced with difficult decisions. There’s never a full moment in this series and I can’t wait to see where book two takes us (as well as the fates of certain characters from book one).

One particular thing I love about this book is that for once it explains why children would be the ones involved in these dangerous events and why adults would involve them. There are times when you can’t help but wonder “would an adult really have a kid do that?” in some series (in Mull’s Fablehaven he constantly has the grandparents trying to keep the kids out of it to no avail), but here we get a clear cut, quick answer, taking away all that speculation.

100 Cupboards: Dandelion Fire by ND Wilson

Dandelion Fire takes place shortly after book one ended. Henry’s parents have been found and intend to reclaim him in two weeks. He wants to discover his true ancestry before then but his plans are ruined when he suddenly goes blind and then is pulled through the cupboards involuntarily. Henrietta thinks Henry has gone without her and attempts to follow by going to FitzFaeren where she guesses he will be. Meanwhile, back in Kansas, the house is suddenly ripped away, with Henry’s cousins, Zeke, and a policeman and winds up in an abandoned field. This is only part of the mysteries and questions that arise in the series.

Book Two of this series did not start off the way I expected. You know how in Harry Potter, Harry got really moody and whiny near the end of the series? Well, at that point, we cared a lot of Harry and could get past his complaining (plus, if you read the books when you’re in a bad mood, you totally feel for him, otherwise you side with his friends and want him to quit it). In this book, Henry becomes a whiner very early on, before I’m sure I’m invested enough in his journey to really care. There was a while that I wanted nothing more than to simply shut the book or force my way through it just to get to the end. Certainly not a good way to feel about a book. Some of the fight scenes were hard to follow, which was an added annoyance.

Halfway through the book I was entirely certain that I would not read the third book. But then it got better. Henry got over his childish obnoxiousness, which was a big help. By the time I finished I had a change of heart. Or at least, I found myself open to book three though I do not intend to read it until I am done with some other series that I have begun (such as Leven Thumps and the Candy Shop War for starters).

I’m disappointed that book two didn’t hold my attention the way the first one did (surprising considering how many mysteries they had), but it does manage to tie up loose ends well enough that I don’t feel like I’ll be missing out if I don’t continue reading. At the same time, I find myself drawn to book three whenever I pass it in the book store so odds are I will give it a chance.

The 39 Clues: Maze of Bones by Rick Riordan

One of the interesting things about this series is the fact that each book is written by a different author, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Style though without the pseudonyms. I haven’t read more than the first book yet so I can’t comment on whether I like this or not but it’s strange because where Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys don’t have a story arch, the 39 Clues does so I wonder how well it will hold up as far as consistency goes.

The 39 Clues is about Amy and Dan Cahills, two siblings whose parents died when they were young. They are wards of their Aunt Beatrice who finds every way possible to stay away from them and have weekend visits with their grandmother, Grace. When Grace dies she sets in motion a great hunt for the Cahill family. See, the Cahill family is secretly the most powerful in history and whoever wins the hunt (which requires finding and following 39 clues) will gain a secret that will make them extremely powerful. Should they decide not to take the challenge, they get a million dollars. Amy and Dan (along with a few other cousins) accept the challenge though they believe they have little hope of succeeding. They have no money and are just kids. And the others want to keep them from winning at all costs.

I love Rick Riordan, so I didn’t doubt that I would enjoy this book. It may not be much like Percy Jackson regarding mythology, but it certainly pulls history into the present. I don’t know how I will feel about the other books, written by other authors, but I’m excited to see how author number two keeps up.

Final component to the book: clues that you can try to follow yourself online. I haven’t check it out yet but I’m curious.

The Wild Things by Dave Eggers

An adaptation of a screenplay adaptation of a book. You can’t help but wonder if a book like this could possibly be any good. For one thing, book adaptations of scripts are rarely good so why would this, a double adaptation be an exception? The reason, pure and simple, is that Dave Eggers is a fantastic writer.

The Wild Things is about a wild eight-year-old boy named Max who runs away from home after acting so out of control that his family all gets mad at him and he is convinced no one wants him anymore. He finds a little boat and sails away, hoping to reach his father, but instead comes to a strange island where he sees enormous creatures of all different shapes destroying nests in a forest. Max manages to insinuate himself into these creatures’ lives, as their king and they expect him to solve all of their problems. And there are a lot of problems. More than an eight-year-old, and possibly any adult, could possibly manage. The problem of course is that if he does not appease them, they may just eat him up.

There is something so incredibly magical about the way Eggers tells this story. I never liked the children’s version, it always felt like it was missing something, but this version is so full of heart. Eggers slips inside the mind of this confused, wild child and as the reader you feel and experience everything that he experience. You understand his feelings of betrayal when his sister fails to stand up for him, understand his revenge when decides to dump water all over her room, you can feel his fear and tiredness and excitement and hunger and confusion and the myriad of other emotions he experiences while on the island and desperately trying to make things better while only making things worse. And most of all, you can feel his heartbreak at the end.

The world is vivid from the trees with round holes to the lava flowing just beneath the surface to the various creatures that live within. You can really picture it, imagine running through it, fearing that Carol or one of the others might accidentally (or purposefully) crush you. You connect to Max’s infatuation with Katherine. After all, who doesn’t want to be loved by the aloof, cooler than everyone else person in the group?

This is only the second book that has ever brought tears to my eyes as I read it.

Though the creatures seem, on the surface, to be simple and childlike, there is so much more there to see. Each of them has problems–feeling empty and sad, unable to control their rage, feeling less than the others, feeling like an outsider.

Eggers truly makes you understand what it is like to be young again, the turmoil, adventure, and imagination. This is truly one of the most exciting and well-written books I’ve read in a while and I couldn’t help but root for Max even as he made a great mess of things over and over again.